NWSL preview

2019 NWSL preview: A league in transition ahead of the World Cup

The 2019 NWSL season will kickoff this weekend and there are so many questions both on and off the field. With the World Cup just months away, will the league be able to take advantage of the huge opportunity? ASN's John Halloran takes a look. 
BY John Halloran Posted
April 11, 2019
4:30 PM
AS THE NATIONAL Women’s Soccer League kicks off its seventh season this weekend, it remains a league in transition.

On one hand, the situation for most of the players in the league continues to improve. Pay has continued to rise, and living and training conditions continue to get better. Attendance for the league hit a record high in 2018—even with fewer games than a year earlier—and following the folding of FC Kansas City and the Boston Breakers a winter ago, the number of teams in the league at least stayed stable this off-season.

On the other hand, much remains to be done as the NWSL struggles to bring itself and its clubs to the next level. First and foremost, the league lost its national television deal with Lifetime in February. Playing and living conditions between clubs are still widely disparate and, in some cases, proved to be an embarrassment in 2018. The league office in Chicago and its media group in New York have both seen major staff changes, and the league does not appear to be well-positioned for the boost in attention certainly coming in a World Cup year.

In 2019, the league minimum and maximum salaries will increase for the sixth straight year, moving up to $16,538/year and $46,200/year, respectively. The addition of Utah into the league last season also saw the standard for player conditions hit a new high, and Reign FC’s move from Seattle to new facilities in nearby Tacoma should create a better experience for players and fans alike.

Those improvements, however, follow a 2018 season marred by reports of poor conditions at Sky Blue FC which included the lack of locker rooms, bathrooms, or running water at their training facility, the lack of showers at home matches, and substandard housing. This off-season, the team’s two top draft picks opted to head to Europe rather than play for the club and several other top players either asked for trades, or opted to retire.

Since, Sky Blue has made several efforts to improve the situation, including the addition of more staff, furnished apartments for the players, and a new training facility.

Another team in the news for the wrong reasons this off-season has been the Washington Spirit. New head coach Richie Burke drew fire for a controversial interview with the Washington Post in January in which he compared himself to Einstein and called the players he’d be working with “girls.”

Then in February, the Post and other outlets reported on accusations that Burke had verbally abused players and used homophobic language during his time as a youth coach in Virginia.

The Spirit also underwent an ownership change this past winter which, on a more positive note, secured a local television deal and announced many improvements, including a new players’ lounge, a new locker room, an expansion of the coaching and backroom staff, and a series of new amenities for the players.

On the broadcast front, then-Managing Director Amanda Duffy (since promoted to a new position as league president) remarked at the NWSL Final in September that the league’s streaming services would be moving to Yahoo Sports in 2019. After struggling with poor and inconsistent streams on go90—the league’s previous partner—any change seemed likely to be an improvement.

However, details on the new service were slow to come, and only last week did press releases start letting know fans how they might access matches, a fact that became even more important this off-season when Lifetime announced they were pulling out from their broadcast deal with the league and would no longer be doing a Game of the Week broadcast.

Although the NWSL will retain Lifetime as a sponsor, the lack of a national television deal seems to be a major blow in attracting new, or casual, fans. Last year, ESPN opted to add some coverage for the last six weeks of the season last year, but as of now, no NWSL games will be on TV in 2019.

The loss of Lifetime as a broadcast partner followed numerous staffing changes at A&E Networks, Lifetime’s parent company. When the partnership between A&E and the league first developed, it also included the launch of NWSL Media, an organization operated out of New York that directed the marketing and sponsorship initiatives.

When the partnership between A&E and the league dissolved in February, the NWSL announced that NWSL Media would continue to operate as the marketing arm of the league. However, since that announcement, NWSL Media has also endured a shakeup of key personnel.

Concerns with operations at the league office in Chicago have also increased. Duffy’s promotion to president followed nearly two years with no league commissioner and, in that time, some expressed concerns about who—if anyone—was truly at the helm. On occasion, some teams even complained about the lack of communication with the head office which led to delays in trades, signings, and roster announcements.

Last season, the league faced criticism for the lack of communication regarding matches held in the Pacific Northwest with subpar air quality due to wildfires. In September, the playoff semifinal match was also moved from North Carolina to Portland with Hurricane Florence approaching. However, that decision came after a long delay on the part of the league, despite weather forecasts consistently showing that the hurricane was likely to make landfall in the area.

This off-season, the league’s primary spokesman has also left, leaving some to wonder if communication between the league and the public will be even worse in 2019. Even though the season is only days away, the league has not publicly announced a replacement for that position.

On the coaching front, the NWSL will enter 2019 with one less woman head coach than last season after the departure of Vera Pauw from Houston. The league had three total vacancies this off-season with Orlando and Washington also looking for new managers. All three openings went to male coaches.

However, the league did help sponsor a C-License coaching course for current players this past September and all nine teams were represented in the course. Utah Royals’ owner Dell Loy Hansen helped sponsor the event in Salt Lake City and opened up his team’s facilities for the players and staff to use.

At the draft in January, Duffy also revealed that a “Rooney Rule” has been instituted, requiring “diversity to be included in the process of hiring.” That was the first time the public had learned of the rule and, as late as May 2017, no such rules had been in place.

In November, the league recognized the NWSL Players’ Association, an important first step in forming a players’ union. In March, the association announced former player Yael Averbuch as the group’s first president.

On the expansion front, and after several years of speculation, the NWSL went another off-season without adding a team. Still, following the folding of two franchises the year before, this at least represented a measure of stability. Some had even feared more contraction after issues at several clubs were exposed last season.

The league’s attendance in 2019 also offered both good and bad news last year. Overall, attendance was up and finished the at 650,564. The league final also sold out with 21,144 fans in attendance. However, five of the league’s nine clubs experienced an overall drop in attendance from 2018.

Heading into 2019, there is much to be excited about in the NWSL, but major concerns still remain. In a World Cup year, when attention will be at a peak, it will be up to those in charge to find a way to take advantage of the bump and find ways to turn that spotlight into more growth for the future.

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